We went on a trek of northern Lao around the area known as Lam Nam Tha were we encountered the Akha hill tribe people. We trekked along with our guide – Pom, and two local Akhas who helped make food and carried supplies. We ate lots of sticky rice, green beans and fried morning glory with our hands on banana leafs that served as plates. The Akha are animists and had a tradition/ritual that consisted of giving the spirits of Lam Nam Tha the first taste of food; which was done by dipping a portion of sticky rice into each dish and throwing it to the forest so that the spirits would be satisfied. I did not partake in the ritual – and the spirits got their revenge with the disrespectful “falang” (Lao term for “farang” or foreigner) by making him visit the toilet in the middle of night in the Akha village, as I had to unload my bowels guided by a flashlight in a stand only toilet.
The curse continued for 2 days. We trekked through mountains, clay, rain, across rivers, logs served as bridges over small ravines, up mountains, down mountains, through rice paddies, and through rubber tree plantations and best yet, we did not see another tourist the entire time. On the 2nd day we trekked to what would be our lodging for the night - the floor of the Akha village chiefs’ house. After a shower at the local well, with many locals looking on, we met the chief. The chief spoke some Lao, but mostly his local Akha language. He knew a few English words because occasionally tourists trek through his village. He had us sit down with his crew and drink much home made rice whiskey and some raw water buffalo skin. He had been chief of the village for about 18 years and was a finalist again for re-election as the governor would have some say as to who the next chief would be.
About 4 years before they had to move their village out of the Lam Nam Tha national park and resettle at their current location. I had never seen rural poverty on this level – thatched roofs, walls made of weaved bamboo, whole families living in the one room with curtains serving as walls, two wells for the entire village, a few bathrooms. Animals wandering about with barefoot and naked kids with distended stomachs who consistently stuck their dirty fingers in their mouths. Many kids die at young ages due to diseases such as malaria. Education is very limited, as many kids work the fields at early ages. Yet the village is almost entirely self sufficient and the people seem genuinely happy. They grow, forage, or hunt all they need in the surrounding hills. It used to be surrounded by many trees, but money talks.
China has shown how it is a power in the area by paying many of these tribes to slash and burn much surrounding forest for two reasons – they can grow mountain rice easier, and they can plant rubber trees. Obviously once the rubber trees kick in, the Chinese will get the profit. The Chinese also supplied them with tractors.
The chief in his house.
If the Akha village’s population gets too big, hunger can become an issue.
A few years ago the village was making too many babies. The chief went to see the governor about the problem, and a doctor showed the chief how to solve the problem by showing him a condom, and demonstrated its use by putting it on a banana as an example. Needless to say, the chief returned months later upset, as this strange western tool of medicine was not working and the Akha village was still producing babies. The chief went on to describe how all the men in his village were doing just as the doctor had shown – before intercourse they would get a banana from the market, put a condom on it, and then go have sex with their wife. The chief did laugh about the story, but it is true. As honored guests of the chief, we ate a meal with his crew, where my friend disrespected the Akha chief. For anonymity sake, let us call this individual “William Reid.
” Evidently William Reid does not like rice (why he chose to visit South East Asia, I do not know). So as we sit in the poorest village I have ever been in eating with the chief and his crew, William Reid barely touched his bowl of rice. The chief asked why he did not eat his rice. William Reid, being the devil he is, would wait for the chief to look away, and then scoop portions of his rice into my or Pom's bowl, and then point out to the chief how we were not eating or rice and we were being disrespectful to the tribe. It was funny. Following dinner, the chief bought four of his daughters in to give us the traditional Akha post dinner massage. The rice whiskey and entertainment of the chief and William Reid, and the massages prepared us well for bed on the floor of the chief’s house with his entire family.
Deforestation by the Akha.
As a history teacher, I have traditionally taught that it is OK for people to live like this, as long as they keep their culture and are happy. However, after seeing this, I disagree. The kids of this village are going to be left behind, cave people in a world of laptops. It seems as if they are already being used by the Chinese. If the kids received a decent education, I might disagree, as they then perhaps would have a choice as they learn about the world.
Lodging - Night #1